NHL- Don't copy the NFL's mistakes.

Some NFL talk for a minute, but it will relate to hockey in a minute, I assure you.

While watching another round of crappy played NFL games yesterday (and everything except Colts-Patriots featured at least 1 crappy team most of them featured 2), I really got to thinking "why the hell are there so many crappy teams?"Players are better today than 10, 20 years ago, and that goes true for all sports. Sure there's more teams, but there's not THAT many more. the Athletes are bigger stronger, faster. The physical therapy and training is better. Athletes take better care of their body. The coaching is top-notch and players spend their entire lives getting coached on technique, form and the finer points or playing their sport. Why the hell are there so many really really bad teams.

Last season the NFL team I follow (not surprisingly the Broncos) was on the verge of becoming one of the best teams in the sport. This year they suck, and the biggest reason, in my mind, is roster turnover. Roster turnover breeds a collection of individuals and minimizes the concept of a "team". I am really talking about "chemistry" but I HATE that term. It has been clich├ęd to the point of losing all meaning. I don't think I'm making any earth-shattering revelations when I say teamwork is extremely important in the success of, well, a team.

Teamwork is tricky, because it can only be partially coached. some of it has to be worked through by the players, and the only way teamwork can truly be learned, and learned well, is good old fashioned time. Players learn from one another, and learn each others capabilities. Look at the Sedin Twins, they are a sum of more than their parts. Yes they are fantastic individual talents, but they have been playing together for so long they have that teamwork thing down to an art. Look at the power play goal they scored against Colorado Saturday. That kind of play takes years to develop the right timing and know-how and knowing exactly what your teammate is going to be doing. It can't be replicated quickly.

Yet the NFL has a roster system set in place that encourages putting the individual over the welfare of the team. It has non-guaranteed contracts, which maximizes each individual players contributions but also ensures that if their play slips in the slightest they will be replaced. With the salary cap structure that is in place, it actually encourages players to look elsewhere. It looks to maximize roster turnover. The theory being that "Any team can do well the next season, because they can bring in new players" Well doing well and being a good team are two different things. From a marketing perspective this is understandable, but short-sighted. It assumes that fans are only interested in their teams record, not the actual game going on.

The worst part about this assumption is that it assumes fans are idiots. "I don't care what I see, as long as the result is that what I want." While this is certainly the case for some fans, I would say that the majority of fans want to see their teams win AND play well. I have watched the Avs win 1-0 snoozers, and have come away feeling like It would have been worth my time to just look at the NHL.com highlights instead. I keep thinking back to a game I saw 3-years ago with a friend of mine. He is a Steeler's fan. The Broncos and Steeler's were playign and we went out to the local sports bar to watch the game and have a good time. These were two good teams, yet the game was so terrible we barely watched a minute of it and instead chatted the entire 3 hours. The Broncos won 9-6. The game was unsatisfying in every aspect, but it was a close game! I mean how satisfying is it to be a Wild or Devils fan, where when your team wins it feels like it was just a dream, mainly because you were 1/2 asleep through most of the games.

The NFL free agency model also assumes that the players are identical, and basically idiots. It assumes NFL teams are well-oiled machines, and if cog A has better physical properties than cog B, then cog A will be better. Coaches regularly swap players because they see that extra bit of physical talent, or skill but routinely forget to realize that intangible things like attitude, intelligence and professionalism is a tremendous part of the equation. It's not about finding the right skill set, but the right player.

People want to pay for quality. If I wanted to see my team win, I'd pick a dominant high school/local team and follow them for the season as the pick on local under-equipped, under-privileged, and overwhelmed teams. They would go 16-1 or something and win their title game 13-2, and my team will have one making me happy. I don't want to watch a team go 16-1, 25-2 or 45-5. I want to watch the best skilled players play, and hopefully the ones I like the most, The Avs, Broncos, or whatever else team I am cheering for, will be the best of the best. Yes player movement is important, and I don't think we should go back to the days when owners basically owned their players, because that was horrible.

Like I said above the current NFL free agency system encourages player movement, discouraging the concept of teamwork, and treats both the fans and players like idiots. (It also treats the coaches like omniscient beings whose vast wisdom is only rivaled by other coaches. They are the smart ones, not the players. The players are doing the coaches bidding).

NFL free agency is likely to never be challenged because it helps players short term, and when the average career is 3-4 years short term is all most players want. Get in make as much money as you can for as long as you can, until they kick you out. The history of the sport (well most sports)has owners treating the players like property, so I understand why free agency is such a sticking point for players. Individual freedom is important and the old system showed the players no respect as human beings. I don't think it's a model that should be returned to.

IT also hurts the players overall marketability. While some players have mass-appeal, the best and brightest, most players have a limited appeal to their hometown market. If a player plays for 5 teams in 7 years the chances of fans of any particular team becoming familiar with him is low. This means there are less opportunities for local marketing deals, and also less opportunity for local business involvement which will lead to post-career employment and networking.

How does this relate to hockey? Well the NHL is copying the NFL with it's implementation of the free-agent system. Yes it has some safe-guards the NFL does not (restricted free-agency for example) but overall it really isn't enough. Sure hot-stove rumors are fun and free agency makes hockey season year-long deal, which build hype. But at the end of the day if the quality of play suffers, it's not worth it. The NHL, with restricted free agency, can institute a solution that will limit player mobility without insulting players individuality. (The NFL can adopt this too).

The best way to do this, in my humble opinion, is to reward teams, AND players, for staying with the same team for a long period of time. The NBA has something like this, called the Larry Bird Rule where it can offer one player a lot more money than others because the player stays with the team for a long time. Why can't the NHL do something similar, but across all players.

How about, say players that have played for a team for x seasons, get a certain % break on their salary cap hit.

For example Player A plays with a team and signs a contract for $1M/year. with a salary cap hit of $1M/year. In the fourth year of the deal he gets a raise to $1.1M/year, but since he's played with the team for 3 years let's say he gets a 10% salary cap break His salary cap hit is not $1.1M, but really $0.99M. MY rough guess of what teams could affors would look like

3-5 years with 1 club gives a 10% salary cap break
5-8 years gives a 20% break
8+ gives a 30% break.

With this plan, the teams at least have the opportunity to keep their teams together (increasing "chemistry". Whether they choose to use that opportunity or not is up to the clubs, but the good ones will keep productive players, because they understand the value of teamwork.

1 comment:

  1. I really like this idea, Jibble.

    It's clear that the best and worst parts of the NFL are the parity and reshuffling of teams each year. It's nice because your team is never really out of it long term if they suck, and yet it's really lame that a killer team is crap barely one year later after being gutted by free agency and the cap.

    You'd have to be careful about relaxing the cap for vets though -- you could end up with a situation where the only way teams could improve would be the draft (like the NBA is, for all practical purposes), because no one wants to risk the virtual taxation of signing free agents vs. keeping your own players.

    The answer to this might actually come from the NFL again, in their brilliant yet mal-implemented franchise player system. Perhaps you could take this cap hit reduction you propose and cause it to only apply to "franchise players," of which there is a maximum per team, say, 2. maybe 2 forwards and 1 d-man. whatever. some finite amount.

    that, combined with the existing restricted free agent system (which I think is the single best thing about hockey player development) would allow for the continuity the NFL lacks yet keeping a robust trade and free agent system to allow hole plugging without solely relying on the draft.